Time management is a funny concept. There have always been, and always will be, 24 hours in a day. While it is a popular phrase, we don’t actually “manage” time. Instead, we live and operate within it. Instead of time management, a better term might be “time utilization.”
Most of us struggle to use time wisely. We have good intentions, but often come up short of our goals, leaving us feeing ineffective and self-critical. There are at least three factors that commonly undermine our attempts to be productive.
#1 We have too much on our plate.
We all face a cascading pile of responsibilities. Some of these have been imposed on us by others, such as assignments piled on by a boss. Other times, the long list is the simple reality of our current life situation, like when we are caring for a house full of small children. We also juggle tasks from pursuits of our own choosing, such as a volunteer role or recreational pursuit.
Regardless of the source, having too much to do makes us feel overwhelmed, inefficient, and frantic. No matter how hard we work, we can’t seem to make anyone (including ourselves) happy. We never feel finished, and even activities we supposedly enjoy begin to feel stressful.
#2 We are poor planners.
There is a vast chasm between a collection of “to dos” and a checked-off list of completed tasks. To be productive, most people need a plan of attack. Unfortunately, many create plans that are too vague and broad, looking more like an ongoing list of goals rather than a specific, tactical strategy.
For example, someone might create a list that says, “paint the playroom.” This is a big project, not a plan. A more specific list will break this project down into smaller steps, listing:
- Select a paint color for the room (pick up paint swatches, hold them up in the room, solicit input from the family, etc.)
- Decide whether to hire a painter or paint the room ourselves
- If painting ourselves, shop for paint, spackle, tape, brushes, rollers, paint trays, etc. Or, contact potential painters to solicit estimates
- Schedule a time to prep and paint
- Move furniture out of the room or into the center of the room to be covered
- Prep the room
- Paint the room
- Return items to the room and/or rearrange furniture
The broad project of “paint the playroom” can leave us feeling unsure where to start or what to do first. As a result, we are likely to take no action at all.
A second mistake we make is failing to note exactly WHEN we will perform each specific task. We place one, unrealistically long list before ourselves each day, and then let our mood and/or the “squeaky wheel” direct our behavior. We often fall short of dealing with whatever was truly important, and then feel like failures when, at the end of the day, the list remains largely un-accomplished.
Third, we fail to note, and hence anticipate, the time that will be used up by routine tasks, such as exercising, returning phone calls, loading the dishwasher, driving kids to activities, showering, etc. We unconsciously use large chunks of our time for these rote endeavors, and then become discouraged by how little time we have left to work on other things.
#3 Our plans get interrupted.
Often, we have great intentions, but get sidetracked over the course of the day. Maybe we descend into the internet black hole, or perhaps we get sucked into a task that ends up taking much longer than we expected. Maybe we wake up feeling ill and lack the energy to work on tasks. Sometimes world events knock us off track, gluing us to the computer/TV or – as in the case of the pandemic – which can interfere with our ability to go about business as planned.
Given that we can’t add hours to the day, and the fact that we are battling a variety of productivity killers, what can be done to use the time we do have wisely?
Here are a few ideas:
–> TAKE OWNERSHIP OF YOUR SCHEDULE
Many of us allow other people (bosses, spouses, etc.) to fill up our time, and then we resent the fact that we feel hurried and stressed. The world will always demand more than can or should give, so we need to aggressively limit our commitments and protect our time.
The best thing to begin is by limiting what you agree to do. You should be saying, “no” much more frequently than you say “yes.” Granted, we can’t say no to hungry toddlers, supervisors, and critical needs. Still, most of us, in an effort to please and avoid confrontation, are taking on more than is necessary.
Develop a vocabulary of phrases that you feel comfortable using when asked to do something. For example:
- “I’d love to help but if it has to be this week, I’m afraid I can’t.”
- “In order to give you the quality you deserve, I will need another day.”
- “If you want it rushed and done poorly, I can do it.”
- “If I help you with this now, I won’t be able to do that other thing you wanted. Which is more important to you?”
- “Can I have time to consider this request?”
- “I don’t think I want to do that right now.”
- “Is there some way I can empower you to do this yourself?”
- “May I refer someone else?”
In addition to avoiding unnecessary tasks, think creatively about how to carve out pockets of time where you won’t be interrupted. For example, hire a babysitter for a couple hours a week, turn off alerts and notifications on your computer, and/or establish “office hours” when working from home.
–> ESTABLISH ROUTINES FOR AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Decisions require energy and time, so keeping them to a minimum improves efficiency. Some daily activities that you might consider systematizing include:
For example, eat the same breakfast and lunch every day, then mix it up at dinner. Maybe choose one night a week to pick up food so you don’t have to think about it.
Perform repeated tasks at the same time of day every day, such as floss in the morning or clean contacts at night.
~ Daily Chores
For instance, sort the mail after dinner, run the dishwasher before going to bed, pay bills on Saturday morning, etc.
–> RAMP UP YOUR PLANNING
It is impossible to feel in control if you don’t have a plan. Get a planner that works for you (either electronic or paper), and then commit to using it. Everything needs to go into your system, including:
- Calendar items (e.g. appointments, outings, Zoom calls, webinars)
- To-do items (e.g. chores, exercise, meal preparation, caregiving responsibilities, and “tasks for the day.”)
Consider your planning system as a mechanism for capturing everything that needs your attention. For instance, if a call comes in that you need to return, immediately record it as a call to make in your planner (along with the phone number), and then glance at your calendar and decide when you will make that call.
Throughout the day, track your progress against your plan. Make notations next to each item so you know at a glance whether a task…
- Has been completed
- Needs further input
- Is partially completed
- Has been revised
- No longer needs to be done
- Has been rescheduled
At the end of the day, take a few moments to acknowledge what you have accomplished, and then move anything you haven’t yet done to the plan for the next (or a future) day.
–> MAXIMIZE THE EFFICIENCY OF YOUR SPACE
If we have to spend the first 15 minutes of our time clearing clutter to find a space to work or digging under piles to find what we need, we waste precious time.
First, remove items that are hindering your productivity.
Knick knacks and decorations are nice, but not when they crowd the area where we are trying to work. Try to keep surfaces clear by limiting decorative items to sitting up on shelves or hanging on the walls. Also, be aggressive in clearing away anything that isn’t helping you get your work done. Many items land on our work surfaces that don’t belong there. This rule applies to any place where you need to work, including the kitchen counter, the stove perimeter, the table in the laundry room, the top of a vanity, a workbench, a desk, a table, and even the floor.
The next step is to create organized homes for the supplies you need. For example, instead of piling papers on your desk, create hanging files where the paper can be stored and easily accessed. Instead of having your makeup sloshing around in a crowded drawer, add an insert to keep like items together. The ability to find what you need, when you need it, saves an incredible amount of time.
Second, create a working environment that appeals to you.
- Do you like music playing when you are working?
- Do you like a warm or a cool room?
- Do you like to work in an isolated space or be “in the middle of it all?”
- Do you like bright lights or softer, atmospheric lighting?
- Is there anything about your space that you dislike and might be able to change?
It is worth doing whatever we can to make the physical location where we work not only efficient, but also inviting. After all, if we find our space unpleasant, we are likely to avoid it and fall behind.
We will never use every minute perfectly, and this isn’t even the goal. We are human beings, not machines. However, when we find ourselves frustrated by our inability to get things done, it is time to improve the situation.
What makes you more productive?